Scientists: scrapping coal projects needed to protect Great Barrier Reef

Intro

The Australian government’s steadfast support for coal mining is looking increasingly foolhardy this week, with scientists warning that coal expansion is incompatible with a healthy Great Barrier Reef, and China’s declining appetite for the fossil fuel showing that economic ruin could also be in store for those obsessed with coal. With a potential in-danger listing for the Great Barrier Reef looming at the June meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, both the Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS) and the Australian government released reports over the weekend. Flanked by the “Minister called the Minister for the Environment” Greg Hunt, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the Government would put $100 million into improving water quality as part of its 2050 long-term sustainability plan. However, while offering some improvements on its draft plan, the final has been dubbed a woefully inadequate “roadmap to Great Barrier grief” – an assessment supported by the ACRS reef report that says if mining and port expansion projects go ahead there will be permanent damage to the reef. The choice is either developing Galilee coal, or the Great Barrier Reef’s survival, not both. Meanwhile, as State and Federal governments pretend they can have both, there’s news from China that Shenhua, the world’s largest coal company, is predicting a 10 per cent cut in its coal sales in 2015.  Both China and India are also seeking to dramatically expand wind and solar energy and displace coal. This all shows that the risks being taken on the future of the GBR could be for markets that may not exist in coming years.

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Key Points

  • It is impossible to adequately protect the Great Barrier Reef while expanding the coal industry. When burned, the coal produced from the nine proposed mines in the Galilee Basin will emit an estimated 705m tonnes of carbon dioxide at capacity. If it were a country, the basin would be the world’s seventh largest emitter. Coral bleaching, ocean acidification, coal dust, declining water quality, dredging, increasing shipping traffic and more are already having a dire impact on the Reef. The only hope for it is reducing industrialisation, not increasing it.
  • Billions, not millions” are needed to protect the GBR’s outstanding natural value. The Government’s 2050 sustainability plan for the reef admits that “climate change is the most significant threat”, but its commitment to coal exports, totally inadequate five percent emissions reduction target, and fractionally small investment in reef protection (especially after budget cuts to reef protection programmes and bodies) may not be enough to save it from a UNESCO in-danger listing, or terminal decline. To put the government’s $100 million contribution to reef protection in context: it is still spending $250 million on school chaplains.
  • Australia is risking the Great Barrier Reef for coal just as the industry moves into terminal decline. Australian governments continue to support coal expansion in Queensland and New South Wales, despite increasing signs that China’s appetite has peaked, and that it and India are focusing on renewable growth and reducing coal imports. The coal industry’s ongoing decline highlights the questionable future for Galilee coal, but also the foolishness of the recent spate of coal mine approvals in NSW, which already has more than 500 disused mines left unfilled or properly rehabilitated pockmarking the countryside. Every day and every dollar spent propping up coal exports is time and money that could be spent transitioning to a clean, sustainable, knowledge and service economy wasted.

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Key quotes

  • “ACRS believe that a broad range of policies should be urgently put in place as quickly as possible to reduce Australia’s record high per capita carbon emissions to a much lower level,” the report states. Such policies are inconsistent with opening new fossil fuel industries like the mega coalmines of the Galilee Basin. Doing so would generate significant climate change that will permanently damage the outstanding universal value of the Great Barrier Reef.” The ACRS report.
  • “The Abbott Government’s 2050 Reef Plan appears to be a roadmap to Great Barrier grief – not a roadmap to recovery. This plan allows for massive coal port expansions and barely deals with climate change, despite the Australian government’s own scientists saying climate change is the number one threat to the Reef. This is disappointing but hardly surprising given Tony Abbott’s track record on environmental protection and climate change. Unfortunately, the Australian government is choosing new coal mines and coal ports, rather than a healthy Reef that supports thousands of jobs and a thriving tourism industry.” Greenpeace campaigner Jessica Panegyres.
  • “The Abbot Point project is going to harm a reef that is already under considerable pressure from multiple stressors. More than half the coral cover of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost in the last 27 years so we need to be improving conditions rather than providing additional stress from developments like this one. What our report shows is that regardless of where dredge spoil is dumped, the Abbot Point project will cause significant harm to our Reef.” Lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Queensland Dr. Selina Ward.
  • “[The water quality target plan] is immensely better than the draft plan, which was terrible. But the money that has been announced is nowhere near enough to do what is required to protect the reef.” Chief research scientist at James Cook University’s TropWater unit, Jon Brodie.
  • “We are utterly committed as an entire nation to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. The last thing I want to do as Prime Minister is anything that would compromise the quality of this reef.” Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
  • “Billions not millions are needed to save the reef. [C]onsidering the reef will generate $30 billion for the economy over the next five years, a much more substantial investment from the Federal Government is not unreasonable. Whilst we welcome the Federal Government’s ban on dumping in the marine park we repeat our call for a federal ban to cover the entire World Heritage Area because that would provide the strongest level of protection. It’s critical that we see a ban implemented before the World Heritage Committee meets in three months’ time.” WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman.
  • “This projected drop in production by China’s largest coal company, coming hard on the heel’s of last year’s drop in the country’s overall coal consumption, demonstrates that China is serious about addressing both its domestic air pollution problems and the global climate crisis.  It augurs well for China’s ability to follow through on the announcement by President Xi last November that China intends to peak its overall greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2030.  In fact, it indicates that such a peak could be achieved even earlier, which is good news for all those who are working for a meaningful climate agreement in Paris.” Union of Concerned Scientists’ Director of Strategy & Policy, Alden Meyer.
  • “According to Shenhua’s recent projections for 2015, coal consumption will decrease for the second year running in China. This decline provides another proof that the world’s largest coal consumer is progressively steering away from carbon intensive energy mix.  With about nine months left before COP21, this has major implications for climate negotiations dynamics.” World Resources Institute’s Senior Advisor on International and Climate Affairs, Pascal Canfin.
  • “This plan to reduce volumes a further 10 per cent in 2015 sends an unmistakable signal that China is intent on cutting the emissions intensity of its energy mix by a rapid diversification away from coal. While proponents of the view that coal is only in a cyclical downturn argue the 2.9 per cent reduction in China’s coal consumption in 2014 was an anomaly, Shenhua’s own forecast provides more evidence that China has passed peak coal.” IEEFA director of energy finance studies, Australasia, Tim Buckley.

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